Feature Article

Encouraging student behaviors that promote learning

The author discusses how she has addressed classroom disruptions caused by students who chronically arrive to class late or leave early.

By Jennifer Tehan Stanley

As a junior faculty member, deciding on classroom policies that promote the best environment for student learning is more complex than I anticipated. Finding a fit between your teaching philosophy and style, student learning objectives and the student population can force you to question the relative importance of many factors that were once certain. I've found that adaptability and thoughtfulness are more important than a one-size-fits-all approach. My development on these ideas sprang from a collection of instances and experiences but none more potent than the following:

A student enters my large lecture class 20 minutes late, walks up to me while I am lecturing and interrupts to ask for an outline of notes for the day's lecture.

Other than being caught off guard at this unexpected behavior, this event helped to shape my current more thoughtful policy on disruptive student behaviors. Through trial and error, I've adapted a system of policies that I feel fulfills my obligation to maintain a positive learning environment for the most students possible while also holding true to my own teaching style and philosophy. These ideas are not new ideas and have been gathered from speaking with colleagues and reading articles on the subject. The important realization for me in developing this system was that a tardiness policy cannot stand alone. Instead, the tardiness policy is only one part of a consistent approach toward creating a positive learning environment. Below, I describe this approach in three sections: the problem, my solution set and some surprising moderators that influence the feasibility and need for such policies.

The Problem

Chronically tardy students and students who leave class early are disruptive to both the instructor and their fellow students. In addition to breaking the instructor's train of thought, the eyes of all of the students in the room follow the disruptive student. I've had students complain to me during office hours about how distracting these disruptions are for them. Clearly, late-entering and early-leaving students are disruptive to the learning environment.

However, it is certainly not the case that I have never been late to a meeting, appointment or class. Plus, students are paying for the opportunity to take the class (rather than me paying them as in an employment situation), so it does not seem right to lock the door once the lecture has begun. College students are adults, not children, and overly restrictive or punitive policies may send the message that I do not expect them to behave like adults and take responsibility for their own learning. Nevertheless, all of the students have paid to take the course and have the right to a learning environment free of such disruptions. How can the most students' rights be protected while at the same time exhibiting compassion for students and the many roles they fill and hardships they encounter?

I want to be equitable to all of my students, but it became clear to me that there are important distinctions for some identical behaviors. For example, if a male student has to leave class 15 minutes early — on one occasion for a doctor's appointment — would I rather he misses the entire lecture or get up and leave early? My answer to this is easy: I would rather he leaves class early (causing as little disruption as possible). But how can I then say no to a student who wants to take the class, but will need to leave every class 15 minutes early to be at work on time? How can these two different responses for the same behavior be reconciled? I believe they can, and I think the distinction is in the frequency of the behavior.

My Solution Set
  • Put it in the syllabus: Chronic tardiness or leaving early is disruptive. Disruptive students will be asked to speak with the professor privately. Continued disruptive behavior will be referred to the university student conduct office, and the student may be dropped from the course. Students with a rare special circumstance for tardiness must inform the instructor prior to class.
  • Designate a special seating area for late students near the door (Schroeder, Stephens, & Williams, 2013).
  • Start on time and end on time (i.e., be a good model).
  • Incorporate group learning activities to make students accountable to each other.
  • Class time is valuable. Present test-related information in the first and last 5 minutes of class.
  • In a long lecture, provide pre-planned bathroom/phone breaks.
Surprising Moderators
  • Physical characteristics of the classroom. If the doors are in the back of the room, it is easy for students to come late and leave early with minimal disruption. When the only doors are at the front of the room, where the instructor is standing, it is much more disruptive for students to enter and leave during the lecture.
  • Attendance policy. If attendance is mandatory, then students who do not want to be there may feel they are being forced to be there and might be more likely to exhibit disruptive behaviors.
  • Availability of materials outside of class. If all of the material from lecture is provided outside of class, then students may feel it is not important to attend class or to be present for the entire period.
Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately my primary role in this situation is to promote a positive learning environment for the most students possible. By focusing on this goal — rather than trying to train students to be good future employees or to show respect or courtesy — I can minimize distractions while still treating the students like adults. My solution set treats disruptive behavior on a continuum and is not one-size-fits-all. If a student's behavior is consistently disruptive, then it has to be addressed. I believe a cohesive set of policies regarding student behaviors can go a long way toward achieving the goal of maintaining a positive learning environment. Good Luck…and don't be late.

References

Schroeder, J. L., Stephens, R., & Williams, K. L. (2013). Managing the large(r) classroom. Observer, 26 (3). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/march-13/managing-the-larger-classroom.html